Traveling Raad Ny Foillan on the Isle of Man

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Mother nature smiled upon us as we set about our day's venture exploring the southern shore of Ellan Vannin, the Isle of Man. From Port St. Marys to Port Erin, along narrow roads and the coastal path known as the Raad ny Foillan, history and the drama of nature, both tamed and wild, played out in endless, methodical heartbeats. A solitary ship awash in the Irish Sea the Isle of Man's coast breaths from wild abandon on rocky shores to placid calm in sheltered bays with everything in between.

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Striking south from the village of Port St. Mary's, gathered about its broad smiling bay and break-watered harbour, where the night before I had savoured an Okells Manx Pale Ale in the welcoming hold of the Albert Hotel (Yn Cheen Lhong in Manx), we began our long climb on the rock-fenced road to the height of land.

Huddled moorland edged the greater realms of pasture dotted with sheep and blanketed in one of the varied shades of green assailing our eyes. Pause was required as we waited for a herd of cows to trundle across the road to greener pastures, the farm life in such contrast to the Isle's greater fame as an off shore banking refuge and home to the world famed TT (Tourist Trophy) motorcycle Race.

Cresting the heights we passed a thatched cottage; its sun room catching the best part of any day's sunbeams. From on high the land drooped slowly away giving visage to the Calf of Man, an uninhabited isle hanging off Man's southern tip, which today is a bird sanctuary owning breeding grounds for the Manx Shearwater but where was found a stunning Celtic cross carving from the isle's enigmatic Christian past.

Curious sheep threw their stares in our direction from one side of the road even as a smattering of bulls, including an "Oreo Cookie" champion, gazed indifferently from the other. All was sky and sea, field and fence with a cool breeze giving relief from our sweaty ascent.

Heritage Village of Cregneash

Our steps brought us to the Heritage Village of Cregneash, an operating historic village recalling the hard life of the Manx Crofters. A time of the seasonal call of the sea and the demands of pecking a life from the land's soils. At its core the yet beating heart that is the village church remains, surrounded by the cottages and farmyards of its flock.
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There were strewn white washed homes (tholtans) with exposed tie downs holding tight the thatched roofs of the single storied abodes. Chickens clucked about yards or skipped across the dirt paths but our eyes were drawn more to the famed four horned Loagthan sheep; a residual effect of the Isle's isolation as is the more famed tailless Manx cat. Great draft horses lazily grazed in outer fields. My mind wandered to the prospect of my own Manx ancestry living not unsimilarly so in the north of the isle.

It was early and we were treated to both tea and conversation at the singularly notable two storey, slate-roofed tea house with its whitewashed inner walls and open beam ceiling. The snug warmth of the former home, filled with light streaming through the windows and the promise of winter coziness lent by the field stone hearth, was enhanced by treats both reasonably priced and especially tasty after our morning exertions.

Scattered about the menu were Manx specialties including Niarbyl Bay Crab, Manx Bonnag (cake-like fruit bread) with Manx butter, Manx kippers, Manx beef and Loagthan lamb pie. The friendliness was emphasized with the occasional "moghrey mie"good morning in Manx; a language once virtually dead but now so re-invigorated there are immersion classes and its increased presence in everyday life. An abiding promise for all those once-flourishing languages of the Celtic fringe ranging from Brittany to Scotland.

Cregneash is but one of the many historical sites of interest spread about the island's 33 mile length and 12 mile width. These include the 13th century Castle Rushen which is one of the world's best preserved castles, the ruins of 12th century Rushen Abbey with its list of the King's of Man dating back to the Celtic sea god Manannan himself, the rustic setting of Niarbyl made famous in the filming of the "Waking Ned Devine" in 1998, towering Laxey Wheel, a marvel of Victorian engineering, the House of Manannan which holds "Odin's Raven" a rebuilt viking sailing ship which sailed the old route from Norway to Peel in a recreation of the sailings of yore and the centre-piece Manx National Museum in the capital, Douglas, to name but a few. Check out the site ManxNationalHeritage for details and information on passes.

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Further Wanderings

So refreshed by our "Manx" tea (tea and strawberry-filled clotted cream-topped scones) we resumed our descent to the sheltered visitor centre and Sound Cafe restaurant with its panoramic view over the Calf and the crushing rush of waters coursing through the narrows, the Calf Sound.

The cafe is housed within an earth-hewed structure offering its 180 degree view of Sound and Calf in all weather comfort. Nearby stands a plaque remembering those the strait has taken and the singular drama of one craft which exploded within the strait. We enjoyed a coffee and gazed out from behind the glass after the spotting of light rains. Upon their passing we strolled the grounds and drank in both view and atmosphere. Definitely a spot for the Manx to bring visitors who would appreciate the drama of nature even when the weather is less than accommodating.

Joining the Raad Ny Foillan -- Way of the Gull

And from here we joined the Raad Ny Foillan (Way of the Gull) for a coastal trail twist and turn, climb and decline journey to the eventual sheltered beach and bay of Port Erin. The world of modern man fell quickly behind us. Beyond the realms of cars and buses the ruggedness of sea and shore exploded. Cliffs dropped away to rocky shores standing firm against white toothed waves gnawing incessantly at their feet.

Winding upon rocky paths and soggy trails, watched by the occasional sheep which ambled easily near shear cliffs, every turn brought new perspectives even as the changing light and mists repainted old ones. Across the long bay leading to Port Erin rose Milner's Tower, gazing tall and lonely upon the sea high atop Bradda Head. Built in 1871 to honour Port Erin businessman William Milner the folly is a stylized lock and key. We stopped along the way to chat with an older couple being led by their advance scout, an energetic beagle, and were passed by a younger couple who were taking the path with a tad more energy than ourselves; book ends of contrast.

Popular as the trail may be it is not one to be run about upon casually for it passes close to cliffs and includes some scrambling over rocks as well as clambers up and cautious descents. Good walking shoes and a little patience with an eye to the weather is more than enough. Our journey proved strenuous enough and of good length warranting the allowance of a full day to enjoy all without haste.

Raad ny Foillan's 95 circuitous miles following the isle's coastline is a considerable challenge but it can be broken up into doable segments if you have a couple weeks and a degree of fitness. Indeed the many websites speaking to the trail, including, show the journey broken down into sections, ranging from a low of 5 miles to a high of 16 miles. Initiated in 1986 the trail formally begins at the Millenium Bridge in Douglas.

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For the avid hiker there is also the Millenium Trail, initiated in 1979, which runs from Castletown in the south to Ramsay in the north (28 miles) coursing through the heart of the island.

Explore by Train

When at last we began the long descent down a cut stairway to Port Erin we felt well entitled to a meal at the Station Hotel, rich in heritage and just across the street from the railway station which offered transport back to Port St. Marys. From the little station there has been embarking, since 1874, the hardy engines which provided the inspiration for the Thomas the Train stories.

It is but four minutes, in the period rail cars pulled by original engines, from Port Erin to Port St. Marys. Just enough to tempt the traveller into experiencing the full Isle of Man rail journey.

It is not only spectacular but also a very functional way to explore this unique island as it is incorporated into the Island's transit system. The railway takes you to the capital, Douglas, where you can pick up the circa 1880s horse tram along the resplendent promenade to the beginning of the electric tram service, also circa 1880s.

That service takes you north to Ramsay with a major stop at Laxey where you can catch a separate tram to the heights of Mt. Snaefell (Norse for Snow Mountain). From its summit you can see the six kingdoms ( England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Man and Heaven). Well worth the while to get a three day pass to explore it all at leisure. IOMBusAndRail has details on the rail experience and bus service throughout the isle.

But there is also much to linger about for in Port Erin with its long and shallow beach surrounded by stores, restaurants, ice cream venues and the railway museum

After a trek cooling the feet in the waters and lazing back to drink in the setting is a fitting reward. It is also an excuse, for sitting just behind the Victorian Era train station at Port St. Mary's is another Station Hotel with Isle of Man brewed beer on tap. This time I'm opting for a pint of Bushy's the new kid on the block as of 1986.

Its a good life.

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Glen Cowley

Since 1994 Glen Cowley has parlayed his interest in sports, travel and history into both books and articles. The author of two books on hockey and over sixty published articles ( including sports, biographies and travel) he continues to explore perspectives in time and place wherever his travels take him. From the varied landscapes of British Columbia to Eastern Canada and the USA, the British Isles, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Greece and France he has found ample fodder for features. His latest book, Amber River, a guide to unique pubs of Vancouver island and the Salish Sea.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: May 7th, 2015

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